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New judge in 'Leandro' case will decide how state budget comes into play

gavel at courtroom
William Johnson
/
US Airforce Photo

A new superior court judge overseeing the landmark "Leandro" case over public school funding held his first court conference Thursday.

Judge Michael Robinson has been charged with deciding what effect the latest state budget passed in December 2021 has on another judge's prior order that the state provide significantly more funding for public education.

In November, Wake County Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to transfer $1.7 billion dollars from unappropriated state funds to meet a comprehensive plan to remedy inequities in public schools. An appeals court blocked that decision.

The comprehensive remedial plan has been agreed on by the plaintiffs – low-wealth school districts — and the defendant – the State of North Carolina, represented by the Attorney General’s office. The plan calls for a wide range of programs to support public education, from pre-K initiatives to programs that build the teacher pipeline to improved resources for low-performing schools.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly have argued Lee was acting out-of-bounds when he ordered the transfer of state funds because only the legislature has the constitutional power to appropriate tax dollars.

The North Carolina Supreme Court decided last week that it will hear the case after the Superior Court decides how the new state budget impacts Lee’s order. Chief Justice Paul Newby also replaced Lee with Robinson, a Republican.

Attorneys for the State of North Carolina and the General Assembly agree that the recent state budget does not fully fund the comprehensive remedial plan, but they disagree to what extent.

Matthew Tilley, the General Assembly's attorney, wants Robinson to reconsider whether the remedies laid out in the remedial plan are necessary to provide students with a sound, basic education. He argued Thursday that Judge Lee’s order is moot because it was made in the absence of a state budget, which the legislature has since passed.

Tilley said the state’s general fund no longer has enough unappropriated funds to support a $1.7 billion transfer. Now with a state budget in place, much of the previously unspent funds are appropriated for specific purposes.

“Essentially, all of the money is appropriated for the next few years,” Tilley said.

The attorneys representing school districts argue the court should simply determine which line items in the state budget meet the plan. Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar said state officials will work to provide an accounting of how the state budget aligns with the plan.

Robinson said he’s inclined to take a “narrow view” of his charge given that he has been given only 30 days to respond to the Supreme Court.

“It is my understanding absent some directive from the Supreme Court, that my involvement in this long running action is to comply with the Supreme Court's order … to determine what effect the budget may have on Judge Lee's opinion, and nothing else,” Robinson said.

The General Assembly’s legal team intends to file briefs arguing for a broader examination of how the state budget meets prior Supreme Court rulings in the Leandro case.

Robinson has until April 20 to make a ruling, then the Supreme Court will review the case. The Attorney General’s office has until April 4 to provide information on how state spending aligns with the comprehensive plan, and all other parties have until April 8 to file their responses.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org
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